We asked Senegalese migrants why they leave home. Here’s what they told us

Senegalese migrants protest against racism and violence in Milan (2011) Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

Senegal is widely touted as a stable democracy, experiencing good economic growth in a more volatile region. But people still take the risk of migrating to Europe.

Because migration is largely undocumented it’s not certain how many Senegalese leave, but according to EU data in 2018 Senegal was the 10th country of origin for illegal sea-crossings into Europe. In addition to this, many migrants also come on visas which they then overstay, becoming illegal migrants.

Why Senegalese migrate is one of the main questions that we investigated in our research programme “Migrations between Africa and Europe”. This involved several research centres in African and European countries.

We interviewed nearly 2000 Senegalese migrants, return migrants and non-migrants in Senegal, France, Italy and Spain – the main European destinations of Senegalese.

We found that the major factors driving migration were labour demand in Europe and economic insecurity and low incomes in Senegal. In a nutshell: for most, migration was a strategy to diversify income sources and improve well-being and social standing.

Who, why and where

Our research showed that the people most likely to migrate aren’t the poorest or the wealthiest. Most migrants have enough economic resources to afford migration costs and an intermediate or high level of education. These characteristics improve their chances and motivation for finding a job in Europe.

But the crucial resource enabling migration is having friends or relatives in Europe. This is key to supporting people who chose to migrate because it gives them access to the European labour market.

Around the 1960s the main destinations of Senegalese migrants were France and other African countries, such as Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Gabon. French industry and the army actively recruited Senegalese.

For its part, Senegal was in fact a net receiver of West African migrants during this period. This was because it was relatively better off economically and therefore had more job opportunities.

This changed in the 1980s due to two main events: a deep global economic recession and a dramatic change in Senegal economic policies towards greater liberalisation. This led to a general deterioration of living conditions and heightened economic insecurity.

But migrants faced some tough decisions. Migration to African countries – like Gabon or Cote d'Ivoire – was becoming less attractive because they were also hit by economic and political crises.

At the same time access to France was becoming increasingly difficult as Paris implemented restrictive migration polices. This resulted in new migration destinations and Senegalese migrants started accessing jobs in Northern Italy and Northeast Spain.

The jobs migrants could secure were low status and low paying. They often related to industry and agriculture. Typical jobs included cleaners, construction workers, street vendors, garbage and recycling collectors. Generally, Senegalese were over-qualified for the jobs they did and they experienced a work downgrade when they entered the European labour market. In most cases, even after a long stay in Europe, this didn’t improve.

The Senegalese communities in Italy and Spain expanded greatly from the late 1980s. In time this provided crucial support for subsequent migrants. A loosening of restrictions in Spain, France and Italy also helped to consolidate the Senegalese communities in Europe.

But things changed once more in the early 2000s when southern European countries increased police and military presence on their borders to detect and intercept migrants at sea. Immigration control agreements were also made between origin and transit countries.

But increased border control was only partially effective in reducing irregular entry. Migration levels didn’t decline until the economic recession started in 2007 which led to fewer job opportunities in Europe.

Migration impact

Migration has had a huge impact on households in Senegal. We found that about half of migrants in Europe regularly send money home – and, considering the low and irregular wages of migrants, the amounts sent were surprisingly high.

These remittances help to diversify and substantially increase household incomes, allowing families to invest in education or housing. They also protect people from instability, ill-functioning markets, failing state policies and a lack of state-provided social security.

On the national level, remittances have proved to be an increasingly important and reliable source of foreign currency. Although migrants remit to their family members, these resources set off a process that affects the whole economy.

Better management

Despite the seemingly win-win situation between labour demand in Europe and increased aspirations of Senegalese to migrate, the migration process, as we have seen, is not smooth.

A substantial part of migration is undocumented and involves danger for those seeking to leave home and travel to Europe. In addition, Europe’s highly restrictive migration policies have made the situation worse. And they have made the integration of migrants into European societies much more difficult.

In any event, EU and national policies have failed to significantly curb irregular arrivals.

Opening up legal migration channels, for permanent and temporary migration, would greatly benefit migrants and their families. It would also allow for realistic labour immigration quotas that reflect the demands of the job market in Europe.

International organisations, like the International Organisation for Migration and the Economic Community of West African States, should help facilitate this and increase their role in organising migration processes and providing security.

Other provisions that are needed include family reunification, study visas and enhanced assistance and protection of migrants in transit and destination countries.

Finally, according to our data, about one third of migrants to Europe return to Senegal within 10 years. These are mostly voluntary returns though a few – about 5% – are forced. Our view is that the probability of returning migrants would increase if the difficulties and cost of migrating to Europe were reduced. Individuals are reluctant to come back if the possibility to re-emigrate is closed, especially if their successful reintegration in Senegal is not guaranteed.